Share this article

print logo

You’re thinking about fitness all wrong

It’s mid-January, and you may feel like a fitness failure.

Join the gym, find a yoga class or lose 10 pounds? Not a chance.

Go from couch to 5K? Still on the couch.

Achieve that feeling of euphoria your friends say they get after SoulCycle? It’s still Greek to you.

Instead of calling it quits for the year, what if you resolved to change your mindset about fitness?

In his book “How to Think About Exercise,” Australian philosopher Damon Young offers a foundation to fulfill that resolution. As part of the School of Life book series that had its U.S. release this month, Young uses philosophical inquiries to explain how we in the West came to think about exercise and fitness and how that way of thinking is a major barrier to being fit.

“This is one of my motives: How can exercise become a normal part of everyday life?” Young said to me via email. “Exercise is often a fad for buffed twentysomethings or a spectator sport. How can ordinary people reclaim the pleasures and rewards of exercise, over a lifetime?”

Young argues that much of our thinking comes from the philosophical separation of mind and body, a dualism that permeates Western thought. We as a society put more value on intelligence and mental ability than on the body and its improvement, he said. When the body is worked out, it’s to fix a deficiency. Combined with the stereotypes of dumb jocks, it creates “an outlook that sees physical and mental exertion as somehow in conflict,” he writes in his book.

“People are living sedentary lives and trying to overcome this by treating their bodies as machines needing a tune-up,” Young said.

So what should be the purpose of exercise? According to Young, exercise is striving toward wholeness and a fuller life. Fitness is a quest for character, virtue, beauty and pleasure. The point of intelligent exercise is full embodiment of that, a commitment to working out the body and the mind together.

Young looks to the ancient Greeks, who saw fitness as the way to push themselves physically and mentally, and to reap the rewards of that effort. “This is the Greek lesson,” Young writes in his book. “What we get out of the gym is more than a buffed body – it is a more defined version of ourselves.”

That’s great for the philosophy majors on the elliptical machines, but how about the rest of us?

To see how Young’s arguments can have a practical application, I contacted my college friend Jennifer Gleeson Blue, who works as a restorative exercise specialist and personal trainer in West Philadelphia and features her work on her website, Her focus is on movement, teaching clients to be fully aware of how their body is positioned. Her goal is mindful alignment at all times.

She described alignment and form as the right relationship of parts.

“At the most basic, mechanical level, it’s the intersection, the sweet spot of joint stability and range of motion,” Blue said. “So, in that regard, the right relation of my femur to my pelvis would mean I would have a certain amount of hip flexion and hip extension available to me as allowed by all the muscles, fascia and connective tissue that exists at that joint.”

The right relationship also is the mind and body interacting. “It takes an unbelievable amount of mindfulness to maintain [alignment]. Even as I am talking, I noticed that my ribs were a little lifted, so I dropped them down. I do that all day. The change requires an incredible amount of consistent mindfulness. I don’t like it, and I’m sure nobody likes that. We’re a quick-fix culture.”

The year is still new and there’s time to lose 10 pounds and join the gym. Instead of making those goals ends in themselves, resolve to have a different mindset. Create a mental and physical foundation to have a healthy year and a healthy life.

All it takes is a desire to be whole.